I was reading Russell’s essay on scepticism recently, which was written in 1928 between the wars. He is fearful of the irrationality of the general populace – and quotes the following scene:
“In 1919 I saw The Trojan Women acted at the Old Vic. There is an unbearably pathetic scene where Astyanax is put to death by the Greeks for fear he should grow up into a second Hector. There was hardly a dry eye in the theatre, and the audience found the cruelty of the Greeks in the play hardly credible. Yet those very people who wept were, at that very moment, practicing that very cruelty on a scale which the imagination of Euripides could have never contemplated. They had lately voted (most of them) for a Government which prolonged the blockade of Germany after the armistice, and imposed the blockade of Russia. It was known that these blockades caused the death of immense numbers of children, but it was felt desirable to diminish the population of enemy countries: the children, like Astyanax, might grow up to emulate their fathers. Euripides the poet awakened the lover in the imagination of the audience; but lover and poet were forgotten at the door of the theatre, and the lunatic (in the shape of the homicidal maniac) controlled the political actions of these men and women who thought themselves kind and virtuous.”
Although the scale is different, it reminded me of the politics in Australia around immigration and asylum seekers. The general population of Australia seems to have lost its head at the moment, and is on the brink of voting into power by a huge margin a real gumball of a man whose politics are rooted in vulgar arguments on many issues. Apart from the deep embarrassment I feel over the whole situation, as well as the idle hope that he doesn’t lead us into some new war or destroy our precious wilderness, it leaves me despairing of the future of Australia and humanity generally. I have to check my impulses sometimes – i used to think of myself as fairly centrist and not at all an intellectual. But faced with this kind of situation i find myself wiring money to the wilderness society and quoting Bertrand Russell.
Yet i need to defend the irrational. I normally dip liberally into the ice cream tub of the irrational when i am writing here. But that is only because there is so little that we truly do know about anything. I am at heart a sceptic. And when one lives as a sceptic, knowing how little we truly know, then Love and Poetry are the green and red guiding lights through the black waters on the harbour of lunacy. Russell’s insight i think was that scepticism, by reminding us of how little we really know about anything, should leads us to act more humanely towards each other, and to do so would in fact be more rational in the end.
Update: since Gillard has been humiliated and deposed there have been some thoughtful articles on her time in power and on Australia’s problems with its anti-intellectual and misogynist attitudes. For the record I think she was a great PM; “If Sir Alex Ferguson was picking a team of premier league world politicians, she would be there in the starting line-up.” as John McTernan says here.